‘What a horrid day!’ said Lady Mary, throwing down her book with a yawn, and looking out of the deep bay window into a world of mountain and lake which was clouded over by a dense veil of rain and dull grey mist; such rain as one sees only in a lake district, a curtain of gloom which shuts off sky and distance, and narrows the world to one solitary dwelling, suspended amidst cloud and water, like another ark in a new deluge.
Rain — such rain as makes out-of-door exercise impossible — was always an affliction to Lady Mary Haselden. Her delight was in open air and sunshine — fishing in the lake and rivers — sitting in some sheltered hollow of the hills more fitting for an eagle’s nest than for the occupation of a young lady, trying to paint those ever-varying, unpaintable mountain peaks, which change their hues with every change of the sky — swimming, riding, roving far and wide over hill and heather — pleasures all more or less masculine in their nature, and which were a subject of regret with Lady Maulevrier.
Lady Lesbia was of a different temper. She loved ease and elegance, the gracious luxuries of life. She loved art and music, but not to labour hard at either. She played and sang a little — excellently within that narrow compass which she had allotted to herself — played Mendelssohn’s ‘Lieder’ with finished touch and faultless phrasing, sang Heine’s ballads with consummate expression. She painted not at all. Why should anyone draw or paint indifferently, she asked, when Providence has furnished the world with so many great painters in the past and present? She could not understand Mary’s ardent desire to do the thing herself — to be able with her own pencil and her own brush to reproduce the lakes and valleys, the wild brown hills she loved so passionately. Lesbia did not care two straws for the lovely lake district amidst which she had been reared — every pike and force, every beck and gill whereof was distinctly dear to her younger sister. She thought it a very hard thing to have spent so much of her life at Fellside, a trial that would have hardly been endurable if it were not for grandmother. Grandmother and Lesbia adored each other. Lesbia was the one person for whom Lady Maulevrier’s stateliness was subjugated by perfect love. To all the rest of the world the Countess was marble, but to Lesbia she was wax. Lesbia could mould her as she pleased; but happily Lesbia was not the kind of young person to take advantage of this privilege; she was thoroughly ductile or docile, and had no desire, at present, which ran counter to her grandmother.
Lesbia was a beauty. In her nineteenth year she was a curious reproduction in face and figure, expression and carriage, of that Lady Diana Angersthorpe who five and forty years ago fluttered the dove-cots of St. James’s and Mayfair by her brilliant beauty and her keen intelligence. There in the panelled drawing-room at Fellside hung Harlow’s portrait of Lady Diana in her zenith, in a short-waisted, white satin frock, with large puffed gauze sleeves, through which the perfect arm showed dimly. Standing under that picture Lady Lesbia looked as if she had stepped out of the canvas. She was to be painted by Millais next year. Lady Maulevrier said, when she had been introduced, and society was beginning to talk about her: for Lady Maulevrier made up her mind five or six years ago that Lesbia should be the reigning beauty of her season. To this end she had educated and trained her, furnishing her with all those graces best calculated to please and astonish society. She was too clever a woman not to discover Lesbia’s shallowness and lack of all great gifts, save that one peerless dower of perfect beauty. She knew exactly what Lesbia could be trained to do; and to this end Lesbia had been educated; and to this end Lady Maulevrier brought down to Fellside the most accomplished of Hanoverian governesses, who had learned French in Paris, and had toiled in the educational mill with profit to herself and her pupils for a quarter of a century. To this lady the Countess entrusted the education of her granddaughters’ minds, while for their physical training she provided another teacher in the person of a clever little Parisian dancing mistress, who had set up at the West–End of London as a teacher of dancing and calisthenics, and had utterly failed to find pupils enough to pay her rent and keep her modest pot-au-feu going. Mademoiselle Thiebart was very glad to exchange the uncertainties of a first floor in North Audley Street for the comfort and security of Fellside Manor, with a salary of one hundred and fifty pounds a year.
Both Fräulein and Mademoiselle had been quick to discover that Lady Lesbia was the apple of her grandmother’s eye, while Lady Mary was comparatively an outsider.
So it came about that Mary’s education was in somewise a mere picking-up of the crumbs which fell from Lesbia’s table, and that she was allowed in a general way to run wild. She was much quicker at any intellectual exercise than Lesbia. She learned the lessons that were given her at railroad speed, and rattled off her exercises with a slap-dash penmanship which horrified the neat and niggling Fräulein, and then rushed off to the lake or mountain, and by this means grew browner and browner, and more indelibly freckled day by day, thus widening the gulf between herself and her beauty sister.
But it is not to be supposed that because Lesbia was beautiful, Mary was plain. This is very far from the truth. Mary had splendid hazel eyes, with a dancing light in them when she smiled, ruddy auburn hair, white teeth, a deeply-dimpled chin, and a vivacity and archness of expression, which served only in her present state of tutelage for the subjugation of old women and shepherd boys. Mary had been taught to believe that her chances of future promotion were of the smallest; that nobody would ever talk of her, or think of her by-and-by when she in her turn would make her appearance in London society, and that it would be a very happy thing for her if she were so fortunate as to attract the attention of a fashionable physician, a Canon of Westminster or St. Paul’s, or a barrister in good practice.
Mary turned up her pert little nose at this humdrum lot.
‘I would much rather spend all my life among these dear hills than marry a nobody in London,’ she said, fearless of that grand old lady at whose frown so many people shivered. ‘If you don’t think people will like me and admire me — a little — you had better save yourself the trouble of taking me to London. I don’t want to play second fiddle to my sister.’
‘You are a very impertinent person, and deserve to be taken at your word,’ replied my lady, scowling at her; ‘but I have no doubt before you are twenty you will tell another story.’
‘Oh!’ said Mary, now just turned seventeen, ‘then I am not to come out till I am twenty.’
‘That will be soon enough,’ answered the Countess. ‘It will take you as long to get rid of those odious freckles. And no doubt by that time Lesbia will have made a brilliant marriage.’
And now on this rainy July morning these two girls, neither of whom had any serious employment for her life, or any serious purpose in living, wasted the hours, each in her own fashion.
Lesbia reclined upon a cushioned seat in the deep embrasure of a Tudor window, her pose perfection — it was one of many such attitudes which Mademoiselle had taught her, and which by assiduous training had become a second nature. Poor Mademoiselle, having finished her mission and taught Lesbia all she could teach, had now departed to a new and far less luxurious situation in a finishing school at Passy; but Fräulein Müller was still retained, as watch-dog and duenna.
Lesbia’s pale blue morning gown harmonised exquisitely with a complexion of lilies and roses, violet eyes, and golden-brown hair. Her features were distinguished by that perfect chiselling which gave such a haughty grace to her grandmother’s countenance, even at sixty-seven years of age — a loveliness which, like the sculptured marble it resembles, is unalterable by time. Lesbia was reading Keats. It was her habit to read the poets, carefully and deliberately, taking up one at a time, and duly laying a volume aside when she found herself mistress of its contents. She had no passion for poetry, but it was an elegant leisurely kind of reading which suited her languid temperament. Moreover, her grandmother had told her that an easy familiarity with the great poets is of all knowledge that which best qualifies a woman to shine in conversation, without offending the superior sex by any assumption of scholarship.
Mary was a very different class of reader; capricious, omniverous, tearing out the hearts of books, roaming from flower to flower in the fields of literature, loving old and new, romance and reality, novels, travels, plays, poetry, and never dwelling long on any one theme. Perhaps if Mary had lived in the bosom of a particularly sympathetic family she might have been reckoned almost a genius, so much of poetry and originality was there in her free unconventional character; but hitherto it had been Mary’s mission in life to be snubbed, whereby she had acquired a very poor opinion of her own talents.
‘Oh,’ she cried with a desperate yawn, while Lesbia smiled her languid smile over Endymion, ‘how I wished something would happen — anything to stir us out of this statuesque, sleeping-beauty state of being. I verily believe the spiders are all asleep in the ivy, and the mice behind the wainscot, and the horses in the stable.’
‘What could happen?’ asked Lesbia, with a gentle elevation of pencilled brows. ‘Are not these lovely lines —
“And coverlids gold-tinted like the peach,
Or ripe October’s faded marigolds,
Fell sleek about him in a thousand folds.”
Faded marigolds! Is not that intensely sweet?’
‘Very well for your sleepy Keats, but I don’t suppose you would have noticed the passage if marigolds were not in fashion,’ said Mary, with a touch of scorn. ‘What could happen? Why a hundred things — an earthquake, flood, or fire. What could happen, do you say, Lesbia? Why Maulevrier might come home unexpectedly, and charm us out of this death-in-life.’
‘He would occasion a good deal of unpleasantness if he did,’ answered Lesbia, coldly. ‘You know how angry he has made grandmother.’
‘Because he keeps race-horses which have an unlucky knack of losing,’ said Mary, dubiously. ‘I suppose if his horses won, grandmother would rather approve?’
‘Not at all. That would make hardly any difference, except that he would not ruin himself quite so quickly. Grandmother says that a young man who goes on the turf is sure to be ruined sooner or later. And then Maulevrier’s habits are altogether wild and foolish. It is very hard upon grandmother, who has such noble ambition for all of us.’
‘Not for me,’ answered Mary smiling. ‘Her views about me are very humble. She considers that I shall be most fortunate if a doctor or a lawyer condescend to like me well enough to make me an offer. He might make me the offer without liking me, for the sake of hearing himself and his wife announced as Mr. and Lady Mary Snooks at dinner parties. That would be too horrid! But I daresay such things have happened.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense, Mary,’ said Lesbia, loftily. ‘There is no reason why you should not make a really good marriage, if you follow grandmother’s advice and don’t affect eccentricity.’
‘I don’t affect eccentricity, but I’m afraid I really am eccentric,’ murmured Mary, meekly, ‘for I like so many things I ought not to like, and detest so many things which I ought to admire.’
‘I daresay you will have tamed down a little before you are presented,’ said Lesbia, carelessly.
She could not even affect a profound interest in anyone but herself. She had a narrowness of mental vision which prevented her looking beyond the limited circle of her own pleasures, her own desires, her own dreams and hopes. She was one of those strictly correct young women who was not likely to do much harm in the world but who was just as unlikely to do any good. Mary sighed, and went back to her book, a bulky volume of travels, and tried to lose herself in the sandy wastes of Africa, and to be deeply interested in the sources of the Congo, not, in her heart of hearts, caring a straw whether that far-away river comes from the mountains of the moon, or from the moon itself. To-day she could not pin her mind to pages which might have interested her at another time. Her thoughts were with Lord Maulevrier, that fondly-loved only brother, just seven years her senior, who had taken to race-horses and bad ways, and seemed to be trying his hardest to dissipate the splendid fortune which his grandmother, the dowager Countess, had nursed so judiciously during his long minority. Maulevrier and Mary had always been what the young man called ‘no end of chums.’
He called her his own brown-eyed Molly, much to the annoyance of Lady Maulevrier and Lesbia; and Mary’s life was all gladness when Maulevrier was at Fellside. She devoted herself wholly to his amusements, rode and drove with him, followed on her pony when he went otter hunting, and very often abandoned the pony to the care of some stray mountain youth in order to join the hunters, and go leaping from stone to stone on the margin of the stream, and occasionally, in moments of wild excitement, when the hounds were in full cry, splashing in and out of the water, like a naiad in a neat little hunting-habit.
Mary looked after Maulevrier’s stable when he was away, and had supreme command of a kennel of fox-terriers which cost her brother more money than the Countess would have cared to know; for in the wide area of Lady Maulevrier’s ambition there was no room for two hundred guinea fox-terriers, were they never so perfect.
Altogether Mary’s life was a different life when her brother was at home; and in his absence the best part of her days were spent in thinking about him and fulfilling the duties of her position as his representative in stable and kennel, and among certain rustics in the district, chiefly of the sporting type, who were Maulevrier’s chosen allies or protégés.
Never, perhaps, had two girls of patrician lineage lived a more secluded life than Lady Maulevrier’s granddaughters. They had known no pleasures beyond the narrow sphere of home and home friends. They had never travelled — they had seen hardly anything of the outside world. They had never been to London or Paris, or to any city larger than York; and their visits to that centre of dissipation had been of the briefest, a mere flash of mild gaiety, a horticultural show or an oratorio, and back by express train, closely guarded by governess and footmen, to Fellside. In the autumn, when the leaves were falling in the wooded grounds of Fellside, the young ladies were sent, still under guardianship of governesses and footmen, to some quiet seaside resort between Alnwick and Edinburgh, where Mary lived the wild free life she loved, roaming about the beach, boating, shrimping, seaweed-gathering, making hard work for the governesses and footmen who had been sent in charge of her.
Lady Maulevrier never accompanied her granddaughters on these occasions. She was a vigorous old woman, straight as a dart, slim as a girl, active in her degree as any young athlete among those hills, and she declared that she never felt the need of change of air. The sodden shrubberies, the falling leaves, did her no harm. Never within the memory of this generation had she left Fellside. Her love of this mountain retreat was a kind of culte. She had come here broken spirited, perhaps broken hearted, bringing her dead husband from the little inn at Great Langdale forty years ago, and she had hardly left the spot since that day.
In those days Fellside House was a very different kind of dwelling from the gracious modern Tudor mansion which now crowned and beautified the hill-side above Grasmere Lake. It was then an old rambling stone house, with queer little rooms and inconvenient passages, low ceilings, thatched gables, and all manner of strange nooks and corners. Lady Maulevrier was of too strictly conservative a temper to think of pulling down an old house which had been in her husband’s family for generations. She left the original cottage undisturbed, and built her new house at right angles with it, connecting the two with a wide passage below and a handsome corridor above, so that access should be perfect in the event of her requiring the accommodation of the old quaint, low ceiled rooms for her family or her guests. During forty years no such necessity had ever arisen; but the old house, known as the south wing, was still left intact, the original furniture undisturbed, although the only occupants of the building were her ladyship’s faithful old house-steward, James Steadman, and his elderly wife.
The house which Lady Maulevrier had built for herself and her grandchildren had not been created all at once, though the nucleus dating forty years back was a handsome building. She had added more rooms as necessity or fancy dictated, now a library with bedrooms over it, now a music room for Lady Lesbia and her grand piano — anon a billiard-room, as an agreeable surprise for Maulevrier when he came home after a tour in America. Thus the house had grown into a long low pile of Tudor masonry — steep gables, heavily mullioned casements, grey stone walls, curtained with the rich growth of passion-flower, magnolia, clematis, myrtle and roses — and all those flowers which thrive and flourish in that mild and sheltered spot.
The views from those mullioned casements were perfect. Switzerland could give hardly any more exquisite picture than that lake shut in by hills, grand and bold in their varied outlines, so rich in their colouring that the eye, dazzled with beauty, forgot to calculate the actual height of those craggy peaks and headlands, the mind forgot to despise them because they were not so lofty as Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn. The velvet sward of the hill sloped steeply downward from Lady Maulevrier’s drawing-room windows to the road beside the lake, and this road was so hidden by the wooded screen which bounded her ladyship’s grounds that the lake seemed to lie in the green heart of her gardens, a lovely, placid lake on summer days, reflecting the emerald hue of the surrounding hills, and looking like a smooth green meadow, which invited the foot passenger to cross it.
The house was approached by a winding carriage drive that led up and up and up from the road beside the lake, so screened and sheltered by shrubberies and pine woods, that the stranger knew not whither he was going, till he came upon an opening in the wood, and the stately Italian garden in front of a massive stone porch, through which he entered a spacious oak-panelled hall, and anon, descending a step or two, he found himself in Lady Maulevrier’s drawing-room, and face to face with that divine view of the everlasting hills, the lake shining below him, bathed in sunlight.
Or if it were the stranger’s evil fate to come in wet weather, he saw only a rain-blotted landscape — the blurred outlines of grey mountain peaks, scowling at him from the other side of a grey pool. But if the picture without were depressing, the picture within was always good to look upon, for those oak-panelled or tapestried rooms, communicating by richly-curtained doorways from drawing room to library, from library to billiard room, were as perfect as wealth and taste could make them. Lady Maulevrier argued that as there was but one house among all the possessions of her race which she cared to inhabit, she had a right to make that house beautiful, and she had spared nothing upon the beautification of Fellside; and yet she had spent much less than would have been squandered by any pleasure-loving dowager, restlessly roving from Piccadilly to the Engadine, from Pontresina to Nice or Monaco, winding up with Easter in Paris, and then back to Piccadilly. Her ladyship’s friends wondered that she could care to bury herself alive in Westmoreland, and expatiated on the eccentricity of such a life; nay, those who had never seen Fellside argued that Lady Maulevrier had taken in her old age to hoarding, and that she pigged at a cottage in the Lake district, in order to swell a fortune which young Maulevrier would set about squandering as soon as she was in her coffin. But here they were wrong. It was not in Lady Maulevrier’s nature to lead a sordid life in order to save money. Yet in these quiet years that were gone — starting with that golden nucleus which her husband was supposed to have brought home from India, obtained no one knows how, the Countess had amassed one of the largest fortunes possessed by any dowager in the peerage. She had it, and she held it, with a grasp that nothing but death could loosen; nay, that all-foreseeing mind of hers might contrive to cheat grim death itself, and to scheme a way for protecting this wealth, even when she who had gathered and garnered it should be mouldering in her grave. The entailed estates belonged to Maulevrier, were he never such a fool or spendthrift; but this fortune of the dowager’s was her own, to dispose of as she pleased, and not a penny of it was likely to go to the young Earl.
Lady Maulevrier’s pride and hopes were concentrated upon her granddaughter Lesbia. She should be the inheritress of this noble fortune — she should spread and widen the power of the Maulevrier race. Lesbia’s son should link the family name with the name of his father; and if by any hazard of fate the present Earl should die young and childless, the old Countess’s interest should be strained to the uttermost to obtain the title for Lesbia’s offspring. Why should she not be Countess of Maulevrier in her own right? But in order to make this future possible the most important factor in the sum was yet to be found in the person of a husband for Lady Lesbia — a husband worthy of peerless beauty and exceptional wealth, a husband whose own fortune should be so important as to make him above suspicion. That was Lady Maulevrier’s scheme — to wed wealth to wealth — to double or quadruple the fortune she had built up in the long slow years of her widowhood, and thus to make her granddaughter one of the greatest ladies in the land; for it need hardly be said that the man who was to wed Lady Lesbia must be her equal in wealth and lineage, if not her superior.
Lady Maulevrier was not a miser. She was liberal and benevolent to all who came within the circle of her life. Wealth for its own sake she valued not a jot. But she lived in an age in which wealth is power, and ambition was her ruling passion. As she had been ambitious for her husband in the days that were gone, she was now ambitious for her granddaughter. Time had intensified the keen eagerness of her mind. She had been disappointed, cruelly, bitterly, in the ambition of her youth. She had been made to drink the cup of shame and humiliation. But to this ambition of her old age she held with even greater tenacity. God help her if she should be disappointed here!
It is not to be supposed that so astute a schemer as Lady Maulevrier had not surveyed the marriage market in order to discover that fortunate youth who should be deemed worthy to become the winner of Lesbia’s hand. Years ago, when Lesbia was still in the nursery, the dowager had made herself informed of the age, weight, and colours of every likely runner in the matrimonial stakes; or, in plainer words, had kept herself, by her correspondence with a few intimate friends, and her close study of the fashionable newspapers, thoroughly acquainted with the characters and exploits, the dispositions and antecedents, of those half-dozen elder sons, among whom she hoped to find Lesbia’s lord and master. She knew her peerage by heart, and she knew the family history of every house recorded therein; the sins and weaknesses, the follies and losses of bygone years; the taints, mental and physical; the lateral branches and intermarriages; the runaway wives and unfaithful husbands; idiot sons or scrofulous daughters. She knew everything that was to be known about that aristocratic world into which she had been born sixty-seven years ago; and the sum-total of her knowledge was that there was one man whom she desired for her granddaughter’s husband — one man, and one only, and into whose hands, when earth and sky should fade from her glazing eyes, she could be content to resign the sceptre of power.
There were no doubt half-a-dozen, or more, in the list of elder sons, who were fairly eligible. But this young man was the Achilles in the rank and file of chivalry, and her soul yearned to have him and no other for her darling.
Her soul yearned to him with a tenderness which was not all on Lesbia’s account. Forty-nine years ago she had fondly loved his father — loved him and had been fain to renounce him; for Ronald Hollister, afterwards Earl of Hartfield, was then a younger son, and the two families had agreed that marriage between paupers was an impudent flying in the face of Providence, which must be put down with an iron hand. Lord Hartfield sent his son to Turkey in the diplomatic service; and the old dowager Lady Carrisbrook whisked her niece off to London, and kept her there, under watch and ward, till Lord Maulevrier proposed and was accepted by her. There should be no foolishness, no clandestine correspondence. The iron hand crushed two young hearts, and secured a brilliant future for the bodies which survived.
Fifteen years later Ronald’s elder brother died unmarried. Ha abandoned that career of vagrant diplomacy which had taken him all over Europe, and as far as Washington, and re-appeared in London, the most elegant man of his era, but thoroughly blasé. There were rumours of an unhappy attachment in the Faubourg Saint Germain; of a tragedy at Petersburg. Society protested that Lord Hartfield would die a bachelor, as his brother died before him. The Hollisters are not a marrying family, said society. But six or seven years after his return to England Lord Hartfield married Lady Florence Ilmington, a beauty in her first season, and a very sweet but somewhat prudish young person. The marriage resulted in the birth of an heir, whose appearance upon this mortal stage was followed within a year by his father’s exit. Hence the Hartfield property, always a fine estate, had been nursed and fattened during a long minority, and the present Lord Hartfield was reputed one of the richest young men of his time. He was also spoken of as a superior person, inheriting all his father’s intellectual gifts, and having the reputation of being singularly free from the vices of profligate youth. He was neither prig nor pedant, and he was very popular in the best society; but he was not ashamed to let it be seen that his ambition soared higher than the fashionable world of turf and stable, cards and pigeon matches.
Though not of the gay world, nor in it, Lady Maulevrier had contrived to keep herself thoroughly en rapport with society. Her few chosen friends, with whom she corresponded on terms of perfect confidence, were among the best people in London — not the circulators of club-house canards, the pickers-up of second-hand gossip from the society papers, but actors in the comedy of high life, arbiters of fashion and taste, born and bred in the purple.
Last season Lord Hartfield’s absence had cast a cloud over the matrimonial horizon. He had been a traveller for more than a year — Patagonia, Peru, the Pyramids, Japan, the North Pole — society cared not where — the fact that he was gone was all-sufficient. Bachelors a shade less eligible came to the front in his absence and became first favourites. Lady Maulevrier, well informed in advance, had deferred Lesbia’s presentation till next season, when she was told Lord Hartfield would certainly re-appear. His plans had been made for return before Christmas; and it would seem that his scheme of life was laid down with as much precision as if he had been a prince of the blood royal. Thus it happened, to Lesbia’s intense disgust, that her début was deferred till the verge of her twentieth birthday. It would never do, Lady Maulevrier told herself, for the edge to be taken off the effect which Lesbia’s beauty was to make on society during Lord Hartfield’s absence. He must be there, on the spot, to see this star rise gently and slowly above society’s horizon, and to mark how everybody bowed down and worshipped the new light.
‘I shall be an old woman before I appear in society,’ said Lesbia, petulantly; ‘and I shall be like a wild woman of the woods; for I have seen nothing, and know nothing of the civilised world.’
‘You will be ever so much more attractive than the young women I hear of, who have seen and known a great deal too much,’ answered the dowager; and as her granddaughter knew that Lady Maulevrier’s word was a law that altered not, there was no more idle repinings.
Her ladyship gave no reason for the postponement of Lesbia’s presentation. She was far too diplomatic to breathe a word of her ideas with regard to Lord Hartfield. Anything like a matrimonial scheme would have been revolting to Lesbia, who had grand, but not sordid views about matrimony. She thought it her mission to appear and to conquer. A crowd of suitors would sigh around her, like the loves and graces round that fair Belinda whose story she had read so often; and it would be her part to choose the most worthy. The days are gone when a girl would so much as look at such a fribble as Sir Plume. Her virgin fancy demands the Tennysonian ideal, the grave and knightly Arthur.
But when Lesbia thought of the most worthy, it was always of the worthiest in her own particular sphere; and he of course would be titled and wealthy, and altogether fitted to be her husband. He would take her by the hand and lead her to a higher seat on the dais, and place upon her head, or at least upon her letter-paper and the panels of her carriage, a coronet in which the strawberry leaves should stand out more prominently than in her brother’s emblazonment. Lesbia’s mind could not conceive an ignoble marriage, or the possibility of the most worthy happening to be found in a lower circle than her own.
And now it was the end of July, and the season which should have been glorified by Lady Lesbia’s début was over and done with. She had read in the society papers of all the balls, and birthdays, and race meetings, and regattas, and cricket matches, and gowns, and parasols, and bonnets — what this beauty wore on such an occasion, and how that other beauty looked on another occasion — and she felt as she read like a spell-bound princess in a fairy tale, mewed up in a battlemented tower, and deprived of her legitimate share in all the pleasures of earth. She had no patience with Mary — that wild, unkempt, ungraceful creature, who could be as happy as summer days are long, racing about the hills with her bamboo alpenstock, rioting with a pack of fox-terriers, practising long losers, rowing on the lake, doing all things unbecoming Lady Maulevrier’s granddaughter.
That long rainy day dragged its slow length to a close; and then came fine days, in which Molly and her fox-terriers went wandering over the sunlit hills, skipping and dancing across the mountain streamlets — gills, as they were called in this particular world — almost as gaily as the shadows of fleecy cloudlets dancing up yonder in the windy sky. Molly spent half her days among the hills, stealing off from governess and grandmother and the stately beauty sister, and sometimes hardly being missed by them, so ill did her young exuberance harmonise with their calmer life.
‘One can tell when Mary is at home by a perpetual banging of doors,’ said Lesbia, which was a sisterly exaggeration founded upon fact, for Molly was given to impetuous rushing in and out of rooms when that eager spirit of hers impelled the light lithe body upon some new expedition. Nor is the society of fox-terriers conducive to repose or stateliness of movement; and Maulevrier’s terriers, although strictly forbidden the house, were for ever breaking bonds and leaping in upon Molly’s retirement at all unreasonable hours. She and they were enchanted to get away from the beautiful luxurious rooms, and to go roving by hill-side and force, away to Easedale Tarn, to bask for hours on the grassy margin of the deep still water, or to row round and round the mountain lake in a rotten boat. It was here, or in some kindred spot, that Molly got through most of her reading — here that she read Shakespeare, Byron, and Shelley, and Wordsworth — dwelling lingeringly and lovingly upon every line in which that good old man spoke of her native land. Sometimes she climbed to higher ground, and felt herself ever so much nearer heaven upon the crest of Silver Howe, or upon the rugged stony steep of Dolly Waggon pike, half way up the dark brow of Helvellyn; sometimes she disappeared for hours, and climbed to the summit of the hill, and wandered in perilous pathways on Striding Edge, or by the dark still water of the Red Tarn. This had been her life ever since she had been old enough to have an independent existence; and the hills and the lakes, and the books of her own choosing, had done a great deal more in ripening her mind than Fräulein Müller and that admirable series of educational works which has been provided for the tuition of modern youth. Grammars and geographies, primers and elementary works of all kinds, were Mary’s detestation; but she loved books that touched her heart and filled her mind with thoughts wide and deep enough to reach into the infinite of time and space, the mystery of mind and matter, life and death.
Nothing occurred to break the placid monotony of life at Fellside for three long days after that rainy morning; and then came an event which, although commonplace enough in itself, marked the beginning of a new era in the existence of Lady Maulevrier’s granddaughters.
It was evening, and the two girls were dawdling about on the sloping lawn before the drawing-room windows, where Lady Maulevrier read the newspapers in her own particular chair by one of those broad Tudor windows, according to her infallible custom. Remote as her life had been from the busy world, her ladyship had never allowed her knowledge of public life and the bent of modern thought to fall into arrear. She took a keen interest in politics, in progress of all kinds. She was a staunch Conservative, and looked upon every Liberal politician as her personal enemy; but she took care to keep herself informed of everything that was being said or done in the enemy’s camp. She had an intense respect for Lord Bacon’s maxim: Knowledge is power. It was a kind of power secondary to the power of wealth, perhaps; but wealth unprotected by wisdom would soon dwindle into poverty.
Lady Lesbia sauntered about the lawn, looking very elegant in her cream-coloured Indian silk gown, very listless, very tired of her lovely surroundings. Neither lake nor mountain possessed any charm for her. She had had too much of them. Mary roamed about with a swifter footstep, looking at the roses, plucking off a dead leaf, or a cankered bud here and there. Presently she tore across the lawn to the shrubbery which screened the lawn and flower gardens from the winding carriage drive sunk many feet below, and disappeared in a thicket of arbutus and Irish yew.
‘What terribly hoydenish manners!’ murmured Lesbia, with a languid shrug of her shoulders, as she strolled back to the drawing-room.
She cared very little for the newspapers, for politics not at all; but anything was better than everlasting-contemplation of the blue still water, and the rugged crest of Helm Crag.
‘What was the matter with Mary that she rushed off like a mad woman?’ inquired Lady Maulevrier, looking up from the Times.
‘I haven’t the least idea. Mary’s movements are quite beyond the limits of my comprehension. Perhaps she has gone after a bird’s-nest.’
Mary was intent upon no bird’s-nest. Her quick ear had caught the sound of manly voices in the winding drive under the pine wood; and surely, yes, surely one was a clear and familiar voice, which heralded the coming of happiness. In such a moment she seemed to have wings. She became unconscious that she touched the earth; she went skimming bird-like over the lawn, and in and out, with fluttering muslin frock, among arbutus and bay, yew and laurel, till she stood poised lightly on the top of the wooded bank which bordered the steep ascent to Lady Maulevrier’s gate, looking down at two figures which were sauntering up the drive.
They were both young men, both tall, broad-shouldered, manly, walking with the easy swinging movement of men accustomed to active exercise. One, the handsomer of the two in Mary’s eyes, since she thought him simply perfection, was fair-haired, blue-eyed, the typical Saxon. This was Lord Maulevrier. The other was dark, bronzed by foreign travel, perhaps, with black hair, cut very close to an intelligent-looking head, bared to the evening breeze.
‘Hulloa!’ cried Maulevrier. ‘There’s Molly. How d’ye do, old girl?’
The two men looked up, and Molly looked down. Delight at her brother’s return so filled her heart and mind that there was no room left for embarrassment at the appearance of a stranger.
‘O, Maulevrier, I am so glad! I have been pining for you. Why didn’t you write to say you were coming? It would have been something to look forward to.’
‘Couldn’t. Never knew from day to day what I was going to be up to; besides, I knew I should find you at home.’
‘Of course. We are always at home,’ said Mary; ‘go up to the house as fast as ever you can. I’ll go and tell grandmother.’
‘And tell them to get us some dinner,’ said Maulevrier.
Mary’s fluttering figure dipped and was gone, vanishing in the dark labyrinth of shrubs. The two young men sauntered up to the house.
‘We needn’t hurry,’ said Maulevrier to his companion, whom he had not taken the trouble to introduce to his sister. ‘We shall have to wait for our dinner.’
‘And we shall have to change our dusty clothes,’ added the other; ‘I hope that man will bring our portmanteaux in time.’
‘Oh, we needn’t dress. We can spend the evening in my den, if you like!’
Mary flew across the lawn again, and bounded up the steps of the verandah — a picturesque Swiss verandah which made a covered promenade in front of the house.
‘Mary, may I ask the meaning of this excitement,’ inquired her ladyship, as the breathless girl stood before her.
‘Maulevrier has come home.’
‘And he has brought a friend.’
‘Indeed! He might have done me the honour to inquire if his friend’s visit would be agreeable. What kind of person?’
‘I have no idea. I didn’t look at him. Maulevrier is looking so well. They will be here in a minute. May I order dinner for them?’
‘Of course, they must have dinner,’ said her ladyship, resignedly, as if the whole thing were an infliction; and Mary ran out and interviewed the butler, begging that all things might be made particularly comfortable for the travellers. It was nine o’clock, and the servants were enjoying their eventide repose.
Having given her orders, Mary went back to the drawing-room, impatiently expectant of her brother’s arrival, for which event Lesbia and her grandmother waited with perfect tranquillity, the dowager calmly continuing the perusal of her Times, while Lesbia sat at her piano in a shadowy corner, and played one of Mendelssohn’s softest Lieder. To these dreamy strains Maulevrier and his friend presently entered.
‘How d’ye do, grandmother? how do, Lesbia? This is my very good friend and Canadian travelling companion, Jack Hammond — Lady Maulevrier, Lady Lesbia.’
‘Very glad to see you, Mr. Hammond,’ said the dowager, in a tone so purely conventional that it might mean anything. ‘Hammond? I ought to remember your family — the Hammonds of ——’
‘Of nowhere,’ answered the stranger in the easiest tone; ‘I spring from a race of nobodies, of whose existence your ladyship is not likely to have heard.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47